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Master-ful coaching for Bender

Minutes before Zach Johnson wore the green jacket for the first time, he thanked the people who got him into Butler Cabin on Sunday night.

"I didn't think it would be this year, but I had no idea," the surprise Masters champion said. "I give a lot of my credit to instructors Mike Bender ..."

And Bender's phone started to ring. And didn't stop.

"People were telling me, 'You sound funny. I've never heard you sound that way,'" Bender said. "I told them, 'Well, I've been yelling a little.'"

Anything that happens at the Masters echoes around the golf world in ways big and small. Bender, one of the nation's best swing instructors, owns a new title — swing coach for the 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson.

But we know Bender as one of the cornerstones to the golf dynasty at Cal State Stanislaus.

"Qualifying for the PGA Tour (in the late 1980s) was one of my greatest accomplishments, but this (Johnson winning the Masters) is No. 1," Bender said Tuesday. "Having a student win the Masters is the pinnacle for a teacher."

Bender, 50, opened the pipeline of golfers from Iowa that anchored Stanislaus' incredible run under coach Jim Hanny. The Warriors won 12 NCAA Division III championships between 1976 and '89, three of them (1978-79-80) led by Bender, who captured individual national titles his last two years.

Though he never starred on the PGA Tour, he soon made his mark as an A-list instructor. His golf home since 1990 is the Timacuan Golf Club in Lake Mary, Fla., north of Orlando, the headquarters of the Mike Bender Golf Academy.

Golf Digest magazine ranks Bender 21st on its list of the nation's top 50 golf instructors. His clients include two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, 2006 LPGA Rookie of the Year Seon Hwa Lee of South Korea, Skip Kendall, D.J. Brigman and others.

It's safe to assume, however, that Bender's name soon will climb on that top-instructor chart.

Seven years ago, Johnson and a few of his mini-tour friends arrived in Lake Mary seeking help. Johnson and the ex-Warrior got along right away. Both were from Iowa, Bender from Waterloo and Johnson from Cedar Rapids, and Bender's expertise yielded quick results.

"The best way to explain it is that he had a ferris-wheel swing and we replaced it with a merry-go-round swing," Bender said. "We flattened his swing and hinged his wrists earlier. By getting his swing more rounded, we were able to match up all his components. Once he did that, he started to drive the ball straight."

Johnson soon won three times on the Hooters Tour but, almost as important, he found his swing guru. A win at the 2004 BellSouth underlined his credibility, but he took a major step during the Americans' otherwise disappointing 18½-9½ loss to Europe at last year's Ryder Cup Matches.

Johnson, 1-2-1 overall, won a 4-ball match with teammate Scott Verplank and halved a foursome contest with Chad Campbell. Bender, who attended the event in Ireland, noted that Johnson performed much better than his record.

"That experience played a big part in his Masters victory," he said. "The mental pressure of a Ryder Cup is unlike anything I've ever witnessed. I think Johnson proved to himself he could handle any kind of pressure. If he had putted well, he would have won every match."

Hardened by his Ryder Cup experience, Johnson then shocked the world Sunday at Augusta by outplaying Tiger Woods. Johnson shot 69 and, tellingly, outperformed Woods in every statistical category last week except driving distance.

As for Bender, he's done four TV interviews, chatted with several newspaper reporters and columnists and was featured Monday night on the Golf Channel. Said Bender, "I even got a call from a student in Germany."

Predictable events, truth be told, when your name drops into the conversation Sunday night in Butler Cabin.

THE SHAG BAG — Daniel Yonan of Turlock scored a double-eagle 2, also known as the "albatross," at Rancho del Rey's 500-yard opening hole in Atwater. He used a 4-iron from 194 yards to hole his second shot. GolfWorld magazine lists the odds of a double-eagle at 1-million-to-1 for an average player, compared to 13,000-to-1 for an ace. ...The 12th California Women's State Championship, sanctioned by four state women's golf associations, will be held July 16-18 at Pala Mesa in Fallbrook. It's open to players with handicap indexes not exceeding 10.4. Call (619) 660-0703 or visit cwcgolf.org.

HOLES-IN-ONE — Al Garcia, Modesto, 175-yard third at Modesto Municipal, 5-wood. ... Dinarte Machado, Turlock, 173-yard fourth at River Oaks, Ceres, 4-iron. ... Victor Riley, Turlock, 103-yard 13th at River Oaks, 9-iron.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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